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In typical uncontested divorce cases, most courts require the initial divorce papers to be served on the other spouse. States vary on the methods of service, but typically the spouse filing for divorce must serve the papers in person, by certified mail, hiring a process server, or having someone not related to the case deliver the papers on behalf of the filing spouse. For a state-by-state breakdown of the methods required for service of process, see How to Serve Divorce Papers.
The standard in the state of New York is personal service by an adult who is not involved in the case. Problems with this method arise when a spouse cannot be located, or it is just too difficult to get the papers to the spouse. When this happens, the state of New York allows what is known as “substituted service” and allows the divorce papers to be: a) delivered to someone who either works with or lives with the defendant, b) affixed to the door of the defendant’s workplace or home, c) mailed to the defendant’s last known address or last known work address, or d) having the Summons published in a local newspaper approved by the court. If none of those methods are practical, the state of New York accommodates this by allowing “alternative service” and the court can devise a method of service that will fit the circumstances and will likely get the divorce papers to the defendant.
Last month, a New York court recently reviewed the issue of whether or not Facebook’s messaging system would be an appropriate method for alternative service. When Ellanora Baidoo filed for divorce, her spouse had no fixed address and no place of employment, he refused to meet anyone in order to accept the service of the divorce papers, private investigators were unable to locate him, he has no known email address, the post office had no forwarding mailing address for him, nor did the DMV have any record of him. The only method of contact she had with her soon-to-be ex-husband was through Facebook. Clearly, personal service and substituted service were not options for methods of serving the divorce papers. The average cost to run an ad to publish the Summons in a newspaper can run upwards of $1,000 and the ads are typically buried in an obscure section of the newspaper that no one pays attention to. The likelihood of the defendant ever seeing the notice in the paper is slim to none.
Since the whole purpose of serving divorce papers is to genuinely provide the defendant with notice of the divorce, Ms. Baidoo asked the court to approve Facebook’s messaging system as a reasonable method for alternative service since this is the only method of contact she had with her spouse. In order to consider this method for alternative service, the court required Ms. Baidoo to file an Affidavit verifying the Facebook account she contacts her spouse through actually belongs to her spouse and to prove that her spouse regularly logs into his account so that there would be a great likelihood he would see the divorce papers should he receive them via Facebook. Ms. Baidoo was able to comply with both of the court’s requests.
With very few past court decisions to rely on regarding using social media as a means for service of process (half allowing it only if a back-up means of service was also used, and the other half rejecting it altogether), the court was left with a ground-breaking decision, merging today’s technology with the law. The court decided that service of process through a Facebook message was an appropriate method of alternative service, which would more than likely provide the defendant with notice he is being sued for divorce.
It will be interesting to see if social media platforms become the “next frontier” as a method for service of process.
Updated: April 2015